What a Startup and a School Have in Common

What a Startup and a School Have in Common

Summit Public Schools and Clever bond over tutoring, a MVP and burritos

By Jon Deane, Mira Browne & Dan Carroll     Mar 13, 2013

What a Startup and a School Have in Common

A couple of weeks ago we posed the question, What Happens When You Cross a School and a Startup? Voilà, Clever on Campus was born.

Our exploration involved Summit Public Schools, a leading Bay Area charter network and Clever, a fast-growing startup that helps schools hook up learning software to their central database.

Last Friday, the Clever team hopped on a train to spend a full day immersed at two Summit schools, which were of particular interest to the Clever team because of their new blended math program. Under Summit’s innovative model, students spent two-hours on math each day split between what we call Personalized Learning Time and CORE. During PLT, students learn on their own path and at their own pace through a competency-based math progression, and combine playlists, online resources, 1:1 tutoring and peer-to-peer coaching. During CORE, students engage in deeper learning projects facilitated by the Summit math team.

What fast-growing startup team would agree to step out of the office for an entire day? And why would any busy school agree to this? Both Clever and Summit have heard talk for years about the value of connecting entrepreneurs and real schools, but set to try out a more meaningful way for schools and edtech companies to work together.

As so as soon as the Clever team arrived, Summit threw them right into the mix, helping out in three 50-minute rotations:

  1. A Day in the Startup Life. Students were given the chance to sign up to be part of a mini discussion facilitated by the Clever team. Students chose the topics and they ranged wildly – one group wanted to learn how to start companies, while others asked to learn how to program. Clever’s eight team members took turns working with groups of 10 to 15 students, fielding a barrage of questions on topics from Angry Birds to venture capital.
  2. “Can you help me with this?” The Clever team also pitched in at the Summit Tutoring Bar, a longstanding mainstay of the Summit Model. At the Tutoring Bar, any student in Personalized Learning Time can come for 1:1 instruction. The Clever team remarked how fascinating it was to see how much the questions varied, a result of every student working down their own learning path.
  3. Project-Based Learning Sessions. During CORE, the Clever team observed and helped students working through a variety of project-based learning experiences, such as a Desmos graphing challenge.

Once the rotations were done, Clever regrouped and met with more students over lunch (the kids say ”Thanks for the burritos!”). Clever then ended the day with some time as a team, reflecting on what they saw and how it impacted their work.

What did Clever See and Learn? (Dan Carroll)

Schools and Startups – Not So Different:

While schools and startups are different in many ways, Summit’s culture of rapid innovation left us at Clever feeling right at home. We talked with Summit’s leadership and students about their process of innovation, as well as the challenges that inevitably come with design and iteration. Hearing Summit’s teachers talk about how they evolve their teaching model on a daily basis rang true for us, in the same way we work to iterate Clever’s technology every day.

Schools are Chaotic Enough – Technology has to Just Work!

We originally built Clever precisely because we came from the classroom and had seen how hard it was to make software easy for students to use. But since we spend more time in an office these days, seeing the live school environment was a refreshing reminder of how everything needs to just work! There are all sorts of barriers that get in the way of learning online (laptops won’t boot, slow Internet, the black hole of Facebook) – the last thing anyone needs is to deal with is out-of-date data or broken logins.

The Immense Potential for Technology in the Classroom

The Clever team spends lots of time hearing about the power of personalized learning. But the potential for personalized learning was never clearer or more powerful than when we met with Summit students. A handful of tenth graders told us how they've flown through the regular curriculum and are now diving into matrices and linear algebra. Another ninth grader expressed relief about being able to learn how to divide fractions at her own pace "at last." And all students loved the freedom of taking assessments when they were ready, rather than by an arbitrary date on a syllabus.

What did Summit Learn? (Jon Deane & Mira Browne)

Clever isn’t the kind of product that students really see, but the students loved the startup lessons and basic coding advice from the Clever team. Our biggest lesson was that to make a school-entrepreneurial partnership like this work well, we should foster opportunities for kids and teachers to work with the company itself -- and not hide them behind their product!

We learned:

Schools Have an Opportunity to Shape Startups

A school can have a meaningful impact on how a startup thinks and operates. The size of the school or even the products used are not the pivotal issues: instead, the crucial characteristic is a school’s willingness to share, to open the doors and let the company in to truly experience what happens in the school.

Don’t Let Your Startups Hide Behind Their Product

Hands down biggest win: letting the kids work directly with the accomplished Clever team was the most rewarding part of the day for everyone. It would have been great to have even more time for the Clever team to be with the kids because there was so much benefit. One student who hadn’t passed a math assessment in two weeks got 20 minutes of math tutoring with the Clever’s CEO (a Harvard applied math major), and later that day the student passed systems of equations!

Pick the Right Startups

We chose Clever because we think they’re a smart group with awesome technology – and we’d encourage any school considering something similar to pick their partners carefully. Pick startups who are not only smart and well-versed in technology but who have a deep passion for the educational process. Likewise startups should pick school partners who are innovative and willing to grow with them –- that’s what makes this work!

Where do we go from here?

At the end of the day on campus, after learning the ins and outs of Summit’s operational model, everyone wanted to identify small tech improvements Clever’s engineers could implement. The most exciting conversation focused around improving the Tutoring Bar, which was wildly popular but which had no formal way for kids to line up. Brainstorming ran wild, with ideas to make the Tutoring Bar more like an Apple Genius Bar, complete with student names flashing on the nearby flat screen TV.

We settled for an MVP approach: creating a simple Google form that kids could use to book an appointment at the Tutoring Bar. Best of all: the Clever team agreed to iterate from this start, as we try it out. And later this spring, Clever has offered to open its doors to a group of teachers and students from Summit. Last Friday was Clever on Campus... maybe the return trip will be Summit @ Startup.

Whatever happens next, both Summit and Clever both agree – sometimes getting out of the office, or getting off campus, is what’s truly needed to bring “ed” and “tech” together.

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